In recent years, diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) have become accepted objectives in the business world despite having been an afterthought in many circles just a couple of decades ago. Nevertheless, just because businesses and business leaders are increasingly seeing the value of DEI initiatives doesn’t mean they’re savvy experts in promoting DEI throughout their organizations.
For many, there is a learning curve inherent in DEI. Despite their best efforts, companies may inadvertently offend, assume, exclude, and overlook to nearly the same extent as those that are simply dismissive of DEI efforts.
“Unintentional or inadvertent acts of non-inclusive behavior are sometimes the most challenging to navigate because they often lead to emotionally reactive situations by both the employee who engaged in the blunder and the recipient of that blunder,” says Grace Chan, partner with Liebert Cassidy Whitmore, California’s largest public sector, education labor and employment law firm. “For example, a supervisor who repeatedly mixes up the names of two colleagues of color or an employee who repeatedly misgenders a co-worker despite genuine efforts to correct these behaviors. Even those who lead DEI efforts can make unwitting mistakes, such as unknowingly using outdated terms with racist or sexist origins,” Chan adds.
Learning from your mistakes is a key part of the growth process, but learning from others’ mistakes can be much more time-effective, which is why we’ve reached out to business leaders to see who was brave enough to share their real-life experiences with DEI blunders and missteps.
Failing to Identify One’s Lens
Failing to realize they’re looking through a lens specific to their worldview and experiences is one of people’s biggest oversights. A comment or policy that is perfectly appropriate and race-, gender-, and culturally neutral in the eyes of a middle-aged, white man may be seen as insensitive to a Hispanic woman, for example, and a cultural reference embraced by African-American colleagues may leave Asian-American coworkers feeling excluded.
Meghan Gardner, immersive learning director for Guardian Adventures, shared an experience in which she failed to identify her lens when speaking with a Native American consultant engaged by her company. “Our company enlists cultural consultants for creating educational adventures for all ages,” Gardner explains. “When I sat down to talk to the educator Claudia Fox Tree of the Arawak indigenous people, I asked her if she would share any of her peoples’ ‘myths’ with me. She calmly said ‘We can stop right there. Let’s assume you were Christian, and I asked you about the “myth” of Moses and the burning bush. Do you think you might be offended?’”
Gardner says this was a big lightbulb moment for her, and she immediately apologized. “[Fox Tree] said that the way I handled her feedback (by explaining my own ignorance and thanking her) was why she ended up agreeing to work with our company. I have repeated this story often in our staff training workshops and encourage our staff to embrace the idea that we are only experts in our own individual lives … so we should allow others to be experts in theirs.”
Failing to Address Potentially Egregious Issues
A big part of a company’s culture is driven by the conduct leaders either tolerate or correct. A company policy against insensitive jokes, for example, is virtually meaningless if the company doesn’t enforce that rule.
Jake Smith, owner and managing director of Absolute Reg, says he sees his failure to address office bullying as an important DEI misstep in his own organization. “There was one time when one of our employees was bullied for having a unique skin condition,” Smith explains. “We thought it was normal because that employee was not reacting negatively to the comment against her. The situation went on until I received a resignation letter from her stating that she no longer felt comfortable working in an environment that did not respect her as a person.”
Smith says the employee’s revelation surprised him, so he set aside some of his appointments and talked to her. “It was the time when I realized that her silence did not mean that she agreed with all the insults thrown against her,” he says. “She was just too afraid to speak up because she felt like no one was on her side and sympathized with her.”
Smith was quickly able to understand the problem and take corrective action. “As a leader, that was a failure on my part,” he says. “I should have noticed the wrongdoing in the first place and taken immediate action before it worsened. The good news is that I successfully retained my employee by committing to eliminate all kinds of discrimination in the office.”
Absolute Reg now has multiple channels whereby employees can share their experiences at work, and the company encourages them to speak up and contact management directly if they see any injustice within the organization. “Moreover, we also invested in online platforms where people can interact and express their thoughts on sensitive and controversial topics,” Smith adds. “This step aims to increase awareness about diversity and inclusion, ensuring that everyone feels respected, and no one experiences discomfort in the workplace.”
Paying Lip Service to DEI Commitments
Perhaps worse than not having a DEI policy is instituting one solely for appearances without any genuine commitment to the underlying DEI goals; those who see through the façade will be left feeling like they have been lied to or tricked, and an organization that fakes DEI efforts appears more unsympathetic to those efforts than one that takes no action at all.
Such is the case with the recent Brian Flores scandal facing the NFL. “Former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores has sued the NFL and three of its teams—the Dolphins, Denver Broncos and New York Giants—alleging a pattern of racist hiring practices by the league and racial discrimination during the interview process with Denver and New York, as well as during his tenure with Miami,” explains Fox Sports. The network goes on to explain that at least part of the impetus for Flores’s lawsuit was texts Flores received that were intended for another NFL coach with the same first name.
“The suit appears to have been spurred at least in part by text messages Flores received from Patriots coach Bill Belichick. In the texts, Belichick congratulated Flores because he had heard the Giants wanted to hire him as their head coach. Belichick later corrected himself, saying he was mistaken, and the team planned to hire Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll.”
Despite the requirements of the NFL’s “Rooney Rule,” which aims to increase diversity among top NFL coaches by requiring teams to interview at least two minority applicants from outside the organization for head coach positions and at least one external minority applicant for offensive and defensive coordinator roles, the fact that Flores had not been interviewed before the Giants apparently made their hiring decision suggests they were only paying lip service to the rule.
DEI efforts are relatively new focuses for corporate America. Many companies are stumbling along their path to embracing these initiatives, but making mistakes is a part of the learning process. Hopefully the stories shared in this feature will help readers think more critically about how they are pursuing their own DEI goals.
Lin Grensing-Pophal is a Contributing Editor at HR Daily Advisor.